Sympathy in the First Ten Pages: From Art to the Commercial Hook
My stomach aches, nauseous from relief, insecurity, regret, and relief again for rejecting my first book deal from a major publisher. I wrote a coming-of-age romance series about a talented young actress navigating life’s obstacles and re-creating herself. “The series has extraordinary promise,” the editor praises. “It just needs some easy, painless changes.”
She either doesn’t hear that I just rejected the offer, or she thinks I’m nuts.
“First, rape your character within the first ten pages. She’s not sympathetic. There’s no way your readers, the teenagers and their mothers in affluent suburban cities who buy the most books, could relate to a seventeen-year-old successful actress who wants to quit acting. So what if social media has skewered her unfairly? So what if she has given all of herself in film, pulling at the heartstrings of everyone sitting in a theater or on a couch in their living rooms, enriching their lives, only to have her personal life be criticized and invaded? It’s the price of fame.”
Really? We housewives have the right to destroy some young girl’s self-esteem because she gets paid well—but far less per year than most CEOs or Wall Street executives? We think it is okay to criticize a young girl for looking fat, changing her hair, or kissing another boy because she’s famous?
Our children get their feelings hurt when a bully calls them fat. We run to the school principal. We talk to the mother of the child. We work it out and protect our daughter’s self-esteem. Do we really think it is okay to bully an actress on Facebook? Do we really send mean tweets complaining about Gabby Douglas’s hair after she wins gold? Did people online seriously complain that gold-winning young athletes, like local Missy Franklin, praised God for their achievements?
Please tell me that one man’s social media creation has not influenced an entire world to think it is okay to post something mean about another person. Please tell me we have respect for our young athletes and celebrities. Please tell me we have compassion.
Second, the editor suggests, “Now that she’s been raped, add more sex scenes. Change her from seventeen to nineteen so there’s no statutory rape problem. Change your audience to chick lit. Make the sex scenes steamy. Let’s try for Shades of Grey for a younger audience. You already have everything in each novel! We could turn this manuscript around in no time.”
But my character is the daughter of an A-list actress who grew up in Santa Monica, CA, and has strong values. The editor thinks that’s not realistic. I’ll lose my readers from the implausibility of a virgin teenaged actress. All actresses are sluts.
I think about my days in Santa Monica when my infant son and toddler daughter played with the sweet and innocent children of music producers and celebrities and their supporting crew. Most of my friends were tied to the entertainment industry. Most were SAG members. Others were musicians, comedians, writers, producers, or lawyers. Their kids were great—loving, and fun, just like mine. I remember fondly Reese Witherspoon who, not once, but on several occasions, made room for me and my son at the bakery’s community table when it was crowded. One time, she saw my friend struggling with her infant and gave up her seat and table for us. I certainly appreciated her conscientiousness as I relaxed with my coffee and fed my son. I thought about my kids playing with Violet Affleck at the toy store and park, smiling and laughing while her beautiful actress-mother, Jennifer Garner, engaged with all the kids and welcomed every stranger with a smile. Both women demonstrated strong values. Is it such a stretch to imagine that their children could grow up happy, talented, and strong? Like my character, couldn’t those girls choose to reject drugs, sex, and parties when they are coming-of-age?
Third, the editor insists, “Your rant on social media needs to go. There’s way too much telling, not showing. It’s not even necessary to move the plot forward.”
I wrote the series after I reflected on my move from living in the posh area north of Montana Avenue in Santa Monica to a gated community in suburban Denver. I outlined a novel in which I envisioned each kid’s future if we had stayed in California. Who would they have become if they went to Samohi (Santa Monica High School)? What if they attended the private high school in Brentwood where some of my friends would enroll their kids? They all had different belief systems. They would learn from each other. They would be happy and successful. They would go to prom. My extroverted charismatic son would certainly have dated Violet Affleck. My introverted daughter would have grown into her body by high school and would become an Olympic swimmer. She would have dated Luc. Her best friend, Emilia, would definitely be a teenaged actress. Handsome Jack would certainly become the attractive, athletic prom king. The kids would grow up with their same, good values intact.
My husband and I moved from Santa Monica to give our kids a better life. What I mean by that is to run free in open spaces, get a great public education, play outdoors in safety, and see their grandparents who live close by. I thought I would also escape Hollywood’s obsession with youth and power. I didn’t want it to weigh on them or threaten my happy marriage. But the pressure to be young, thin, and beautiful is pervasive in all cities and suburbs. Social media puts it center screen in our daily lives. It moves all of our stories forward.
Last, the editor insists, “Dump the mixed-race ethnicities and prayers. Readers can’t relate to so many skin colors and cultures. You’ll alienate the African American community because you’ve got a Black woman married to a Native American and have a Black lesbian. Your main character is mixed. Her dear friend is gay, another is Jewish, and her assistant is Muslim. The billionaire guy’s ex is Asian? Don’t you think having a Catholic half-Latino who goes to church on Sunday is a bit much? The kids have sex but are Christian? You can talk about God in terms of culture, but not in terms of beliefs. How can my marketing department pitch this? You’ll piss off everyone, especially your target demographic.”
Huh? Sorry French-Japanese-Hawaiian Luc. Sorry sweet Finnish-American Emilia. Sorry Swiss-Latino-Irish-American Jack. Sorry stars like Halle Berry, Hailee Steinfeld, Lenny Kravitz, Taylor Lautner, and Whoopi Goldberg. Sorry President Obama. American readers who buy coming-of-age novels can’t relate to you. I live in the target demographic that purchases the most young-adult novels. I wrote a fictional series that my friends and neighbors who represent each skin color read and loved. We enjoy your movies, buy your endorsed products, value your opinions, ream you online, gossip about your infidelity, and laugh at your haircut. But somehow, we can’t relate?